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Friday, July 17, 2015

Pua Kumbu - Spinning Yarn and Weaving Tales

An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns — but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth. [Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style]

 Heritage pua kumbu pieces on display at the exhibition. Some of them are part of Welyne's personal collection.
Dayan De Silva and I attended the Pua Kumbu exhibition at the University of Malaya, on 12 July 2015. For those unfamiliar with the term, pua kumbu, is a traditional hand-dyed, hand woven ceremonial clothg, originating from the state of Sarawak (a part of Malaysian Borneo). Pua kumbu is created exclusively by the women of the Iban tribe, and the dyeing and weaving of this remarkable cloth is steeped in myths, rituals and taboos. About 10 of these women, who are master weavers, are recognised as 'living heritage' by UNESCO. 

Dayan having a chat with Welyne. Dayan is an editorial consultant, she undertakes
projects which are mainly non-fiction and academic in nature.
The Curator, Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom, walked us through the exhibition personally. It's not often that this happens, but we were impressed with absolutely everything: the beautiful pua kumbu pieces, the research behind the artefacts and the audio-visual presentations and the animation of the myths encoded the textiles. Being a writer myself, I've heard the terms 'weaving a story' or 'bringing the different strands/threads of a story together' often enough and in the case of pua kumbu, a story is literally woven into the cloth. 

Why is telling a story similar to weaving a cloth? Perhaps these expressions in English arose from the weaving of tapestries, which often served as a medium to record an event. The most famous textile art in history must be the 900 year old Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman invasion of Britain.

Excerpt from Wikipedia:

A small part of the Odo Bayeux Tapestry - royalty free image from Wikipedia.
The Bayeux Tapestry  is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.
The tapestry consists of some fifty scenes..., embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns. It is likely that it was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half-brother, and made in England—not Bayeux—in the 1070s. In 1729 the hanging was rediscovered by scholars at a time when it was being displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry is now exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in BayeuxNormandy, France (49.2744°N 0.7003°W).
The designs on the Bayeux Tapestry are embroidered rather than woven, so that it is not technically a tapestry.[2] Nevertheless, it is always referred to as such.

Close-up of the design of a beautiful yellow and blue pua kumbu
Back to the exhibition - Dr Welyne, who is from Sarawak, said that the exhibition was the culmination of three years of research among the Iban longhouses of Sarawak. One of her discoveries was that different pieces of pua kumbu made by different tribes may actually code different parts of a longer story i.e. the cloth from one village may have the beginning of a story, a weaver from another village may have the second part etc. She found out that the weavers themselves did not know this fact and she decided to piece together several myths based on her interpretation of various pieces of pua kumbu.  

A pua kumbu depicting the love story of the god Keling and the beautiful maiden called Kumang. We will have to
wait for Welyne's forthcoming book for the whole story!

Artistic rendition of Kumang in all her finery...

Dr Welyne explaining the story behind an intricately woven pua kumbu
 The other surprising piece of information from Welyne is the fact that pua kumbu has gender - some pieces are considered to be male and some are female.

These two pieces are 'female' pua kumbu.

Another interesting fact is that, every piece of pua kumbu must have a provenance. The weavers must know the story behind the cloth they are weaving; they would never attempt to weave a particular pattern if the weaver who first created it passed away without telling them the story behind it... Similarly, there are patterns which belong exclusively to longhouses with a head-hunting tradition and it is taboo for weavers who did not come from such a heritage to weave these patterns; however, longhouses which did not practice head-hunting in the past also have their own special heritage pua kumbu designs.

Artistic rendition of the Iban god, Keling. To find out more about him,
you may want to read Golda Mowe's book, Iban Dream and Iban Journey

So where do the inspiration for the pua kumbu designs and story come from? They come from dreams which sometimes visit these weavers. Which is why, they are also known as the weavers of dreams. I made a reference to this in the story of Santubong and Sejinjang, in my book, Eight Fortunes of the Qilin (also refer to the previous blogpost - The True Identity of Nakhoda Ragam.) 
And the reason why, people refer to telling a story as 'spinning a yarn' in the old days...

The metaphor is obvious; you tell a story like you make clothing. Repetition and pattern, moving the story along a path like a piece of thread you're spinning, putting large pieces together, crafting small pieces carefully, to get things put together right. It's art and it's craft and it's a valuable skill. Especially in a non-literate society.
So the metaphor theme Storytelling Is Weaving
as well as the fact that storytelling is lying
licenses these instantiations
  • loom of language, weave a story/spell, thread of discourse, warp and woof
including these, where the textile metaphor has an association of telling lies:
  • fabricating evidence, spin a yarn, tissue of lies, pull the wool over X’s eyes, out of whole cloth
Invitations are already coming in for the pua kumbu exhibition to be shown in Australia, Canada, Taiwan, UK, US and maybe Paris, France...

These pictures taken at the Pua Kumbu Exhibition at the Art Gallery, Chancellery building, University of Malaya.

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